We have seen some aggressive racing in early-season stage races but things become much more serious and much more prestigious in March, with Paris-Nice and especially Tirreno-Adriatico, set to produce a big-name showdown between the riders who will clash at Milan-San Remo, the cobbled Classics and later the Giro d'Italia.
Tirreno-Adriatico was created in 1966 as an alternative to Paris-Nice and for many years was considered 'the' perfect preparation race for Milan-San Remo and the other spring Classics. It has evolved further in recent years thanks to the hard work of race director Mauro Vegni, who grew up under the wing of race creator Franco Mealli.
The 54th edition arguably overshadows its French rival thanks to the presence of Chris Froome (Team Sky), Tom Dumoulin (Team Sunweb), Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida), Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe), Michal Kwiatkowski (Team Sky), Philippe Gilbert and Fernando Gaviria (Quick-Step Floors), Mark Cavendish (Dimension Data) and even late entry Marcel Kittel (Katusha-Alpecin).
Tirreno-Adriatico is still considered the best way to peak for Milan-San Remo without the risk of bad weather in northern Europe and the 'Races of the Two Seas' includes long hilly stages in the Apennines plus a testing mountain finish and time trials. With the success of Strade Bianche and the eternal fascination of Milan-San Remo, Tirreno-Adriatico has become the meat in a tasty Italian panino.
Nairo Quintana (Movistar) won the overall classification for a second time in 2017, while Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida) has won twice in 2012 and 2013.
This year's Tirreno-Adriatico will remember Michele Scarponi with stage 5 finishing in his hometown of Filottrano. Scarponi won Tirreno-Adriatico in 2009 and three stages of what was his home stage race, often excelling in the steep climbs of his Marche region near the Adriatic coast.
Scarponi finished 15th in the 2017 Tirreno-Adriatico but was tragically killed in late April after being hit by a vehicle as he started a training ride from his home in Filottrano.
Something for everyone
Continuing the tradition of recent editions of Tirreno-Adriatico, this year's race will again start in Lido di Camaiore on Wednesday, March 7 with a 21.5km team time trial and end on Tuesday, March 13 with a 10km individual time trial in San Benedetto del Tronto.
In between, the race heads south near the Tuscan coast to Follonica and then across to the Apennines to the Adriatic via Trevi, a mountain finish in Sarnano Sassotetto, Filottrano and a final chance for the sprinters in Fano before the San Benedetto del Tronto time trial.
BMC have dominated the fast and flat TTT course on the seafront of Lido di Camaiore and will again be the team to beat. They put 17 seconds into Quick-Step Floors last year, with FDJ third at 22 seconds after a crash destroyed Team Sky's chances. BMC can count on Rohan Dennis, Stefan Kung and Patrick Bevin to drive the team on the long straight roads, while Quick-Step Floors, Movistar and Mitchelton-Scott will be hoping to take them on.
Stage 2 to Follonica gives sprinters and their lead-out trains a chance to test their form before Milan-San Remo and land a psychological blow on their rivals for the Via Roma. The 172km stage ends with three laps of a 8.3km circuit, with the last three kilometres on a long, straight road.
The hills finally appear on stage 3 to Trevi, and the rolling 239km stage ends with a 2.5km kick up to the line. The rider get to see the steep, narrow finish during a final circuit and then hit the 15 per cent sections for the second time with one kilometre to go. It is a classic, out-of-the-saddle Tirreno-Adriatico finish.
Saturday's 219km fourth stage to Sarnano Sottotetto is the hardest of the race and ends with the 13km climb to the line at an altitude of 1335 metres. The hardest section comes in the middle, with 5km at over 8 per cent. The stage includes three other categorised climbs but at least 12 other hills along the rolling profile.
Any time gaps created between the overall contenders will be almost impossible to make up in the final time trial stage. This 'tappone' will surely decide this year's Tirreno-Adriatico.
Sunday's stage to Filottrano will be a day of remembrance, with Scarponi's family and friends expected at the finish. The 179km stage passes through the hilltop town twice before the finish, with the Muro di Filottrano touching 15 per cent.
After suffering across the Apennines, the sprinters get another chance in Fano, with a 25km flat loop helping them recover from the early climbing during the 153km stage. The circuit covers straight, flat roads but for some reason includes two right-hand turns in the final 1.5km. Positioning will be vital, with the last turn just 400 metres from the line.
As per tradition, Tirreno-Adriatico ends with the out and back 10km individual time trial on the seafront in San Benedetto del Tronto. For most riders it is an extra recovery day before Milan-San Remo, but every second will count for the overall contenders and TT specialists. Dennis won the stage in 2017, while Nairo Quintana (Movistar) sealed overall victory ahead of the Australian and Thibaut Pinot.
Big name showdown in the GC, sprints and time trials
Quintana and Pinot are not riding this year's Tirreno-Adriatico and so we can expect a different narrative, coloured by the presence of Chris Froome (Team Sky), Tom Dumoulin (Team Sunweb), Mikel Landa (Movistar), Primoz Roglic (LottoNL-Jumbo), Miguel Angel Lopez (Astana), Rigoberto Uran (EF Education First-Drapac), Adam Yates (Mitchelton-Scott), and Geraint Thomas (Team Sky).
After following different racing programmes, we will see who is on form and ready to fight for the blue leader's jersey, the spectacular trident winner's trophy and the bragging rights of victory.
Froome's presence will no doubt cause a stir and debate as he awaits news of his salbutamol case, especially after the latest revelations of the British Parliamentary Select Committee. However the quality of the start list could manage to overshadow the scandals.
Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe) will again ride Tirreno-Adriatico in 2018 as he continues his spring campaign. He has won a total of seven stages and is just one short of third place in the record book of all-time stage winners. The world champion could join or pass Alessandro Petacchi, Moreno Argentin and Giuseppe Saronni, with eight wins and close in on Oscar Freire (11) and Roger de Vlaeminck (15).
Sagan leads the long list of Classics riders and sprinters in the big-name start list. It will be interesting to see if Sagan can be competitive in the sprints against Gaviria, Caleb Ewan (Mitchelton-Scott), Sonny Colbrelli (Bahrain-Merida), Sacha Modolo (EF Education-Drapac), Danny van Poppel (LottoNL-Jumbo) and Giacomo Nizzolo (Trek-Segafredo).
The start list also includes a number of big-name Classics riders including Greg Van Avermaet (BMC), Filippo Pozzato (Wilier Triestina), Diego Ulissi (UAE Team Emirates), Edvald Boasson Hagen (Dimension Data), Alexey Lutsenko (Astana), Strade Bianche winner Tiesj Benoot (Lotto Soudal), Sep Vanmarcke (EF Education First-Drapac), Nathan Haas (Katusha-Alpecin) and Jasper Stuyven (Trek-Segafredo).
The seven days of racing will be a key block for all them and offer us a chance to scrutinise their form, the strength of their teams and indications of future success or failure.
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